Shulman Is All 'Sherman's Way'
At only 27 years old, the incredibly versatile Michael Shulman already has a resume that would be the envy of most actors twice his age. He has been acting since age eight, winning his first major stage role on his very first audition. Since then he has conquered an array of complex, nuanced characters with a fresh, instinctive approach inspired by his idol Dustin Hoffman, appearing in everything from the hit TV show Party of Five to the searing new off-Broadway play, White People by J.T. Rogers.
His new production company, Starry Night, Shulman and producing partner Craig Saavedra will soon debut their first feature project, Sherman's Way, in early March, which reunites him with his Party of Five co-star Lacey Chabert. Shulman both produces and stars. I spoke to Shulman the week before he was finishing up White People and we spoke about the show and his new film.
TJ: You new film, Sherman's Way...this is from your new production company, Starry Night.
SHULMAN: That's right. Starry Night was started, as the name kind of suggests, as I went to Yale and was an Art History major. I decided to take some time off from acting and go to college and learn the other side of art. So, I took all these classes in art and music and literature. And one of my favorite paintings in Starry Night, which is at MOMA and formed this company with my producing partner who is based in LA and I am based in New York. Sherman's Way is our first film and it's very exciting that it's coming out as it's been traveling the festival circuit for a year. It's great that it will finally be going in front of movie-going audiences on March 6th. It will be a lot of fun!
TJ: You not only produced it but you are starring in it as well?
SHULMAN: Yes, I did. The story is largely based on myself and my producing partner. To kind of sum it up, Craig, who is producer and director, and I decided to make a little movie, which he would direct and I would be in it. We started looking at all these scripts and we really couldn't find anything. It wasn't like we were getting the top of the line crème de la crème scripts...we were getting scripts we could find.
Well, as it happens, we took a road trip when I flew out to California and we went up to Napa Valley. We were in this convertible and Craig, who is an older guy in his forties, and I were talking and he is looking at the incredible scenery saying, "Oh my god! I can't believe how beautiful this is!" And I'm looking at my cell phone because I can't find reception. And we realized that's a story! One guy who is so in love with nature and appreciates all the fine natures of life and the other guy who is so tied to the fast-paced life in New York City that all he is worried about is being able to get a phone call or make a phone call or get his e-mail.
So, we realized that the story was really about us and we pitched it to a writer, one of Craig's close friends, who wrote the script. It became this movie, Sherman's Way, which is kind of a buddy picture with a love story twist about these two guys who are totally different and end up on this road trip through Napa Valley and both teach each other parts about life. In the process, I meet a girl who kind of changes my life.
My character, Sherman, discovers that life is about the journey and not the destination. So, it's very much a story about appreciating each detour along the way on the road of life. It's something that I have learned through being an actor and spending time in different places and growing up in New York, which is so fast paced and wanting everything to happen now. I went to a school where I was the only actor and and everyone else wanted to do the businessman and lawyer route. It's New York and you're trying to figure out how to do it on your own. It's a story that's very close to me.
TJ: It's very funny...and familiar...hearing you talk about the cell phone and the e-mail situation.
SHULMAN: Little did I realize that we would end up filming the movie just north of Napa Valley at this place called Lake County, California, where there was literally no cell phone reception and no internet. I was in a cabin in the woods for four weeks where the restaurants closed at 6PM, not opened, but closed! To film this movie, for me, was the ultimate getting into my character. I spent my entire life in New York City and filming this movie, I learned how to drive a stick shift. I learned how to climb a tree, which no one realized I had no idea how to climb a tree. I mean, who climbs a tree in Central Park?? I learned how to do all these things just from filming this movie. And that's kind of the story of the movie too and having the summer of your life out of your comfort zone.
Filming itself was out of my comfort zone...there were bugs everywhere...it was 120 degrees. At one point, I get thrown in a swamp in the middle of the movie, which was supposed to be this beautiful, beautiful lake. But because the temperature was so high, right before we started filming the scene, the algae in the water just sort of blossomed or whatever you call it and the entire lake turned green. I stepped onto the dock and there were tarantulas everywhere and everyone knows that I am totally freaking out. My co-star said to me, "Dude, don't do it. There are leeches in the lake." And I am like, "There are leeches in the lake??" He said, "If you can see what's at the bottom of the lake, don't do it."
He was joking around with me but he was scaring me so much because here's this city kid and I can't see the lake that they're throwing me in. So, I said, "Excuse me one second" and I go into my little wagon thing and I put on like three pairs of underwear. I rubberbanded my jeans together so that nothing can crawl up me. I get thrown in the lake and I just bolted out the second that I hit the water. Imagine being thrown in a lake that's actually a warm swamp and you feel all the marsh and stuff underneath. It was a crazy experience to film this movie but certainly very rewarding.
TJ: It brought you right out of the city in the country and welcome to real life!
SHULMAN: Yeah, yeah! This is real life. It makes you realize that the city is not always real life.
TJ: Now, let's also talk about White People, your most recent stage appearance in New York.
SHULMAN: It's been a wonderful experience for me. I hadn't been back on stage in a while. I don't know if you saw JT's last play, The Overwhelming at the Roundabout last year, but he is this incredible writer who writes about real important issues and important topics. I think dealing with race and racism in this post-Obama world is very topical.
The character of Alan just really spoke to me from the second that I read it. He's a young college professor who moves to New York with his newly married wife, who is pregnant, and his life is really starting. He has this one incredible student, this black girl, who he knows is a thousand times smarter than he is. Everything is going pretty well until he and his wife are attacked by this group of black kids in Stuyvesant Square, which shatters his entire world because now, he thinks these horrible thoughts when he see this girl, Felicia, his amazing student.
It's all about him wrestling with his own prejudices and his own guilt and his own inner demons. He's trying desperately to recapture his faith...his struggle is trying to find faith in life and in himself and God. It's this incredible role and I am so honored to play it. The difficulty is that it's a monologue play so I'm really talking to the audience and that is sometimes scary, as I'm sure you know. It's also incredibly invigorating because I really look at the audience and each night the audience changes so what they're giving me, as an actor, changes. It's amazing how some nights an audience will laugh at certain lines and some nights they won't. Because it's a small theatre, I can see everyone in the audience so it really does establish this personal connection with them. And that's been really fun.
TJ: Being someone who is in his late forties, I have seen many social changes over the years including people and their prejudices against certain sections of society. What is your personal view? Do you think that there is still a lot of prejudice out there?
SHULMAN: I really do. I think that it is something we'll be wrestling with over the next few years during Obama's administration. I do think it's certainly less than it was. We clearly by a large majority elected the first black President of the United States and that speaks volumes. But I think what's not being talked about, and what JT talks about, is what we're not speaking about and what we feel deep inside. To think that racism does not exist is somewhat naïve.
But for me, playing this role with a character who is an incredibly educated guy who all of a sudden realizes he has certain seeds of prejudice. I start realizing things like why are we afraid of certain people or walking down certain streets. Is that true or is that being smart or is that, in a way, being prejudicial? A line that I have is, "There is fear for a reason", and I think there is an interesting dynamic there. I mean, we live in New York and have watched it get so much safer, But are we in a way being a little bit naïve of we think things can't happen?
Thanks to Shulman for such great insight and a great interview. You should check out his new film Sherman's Way, directed by Craig Saavedra, which is opening in limited release on March 6, 2009, which also features Donna Murphy, Lacey Chabert, James LeGros and Enrico Colantoni. You can also check out the website at www.shermansway.com. For now, ciao and remember, theatre is my life!